Thursday, November 15, 2007

Anarchy, Ethics and Idiots


You know, the more time I spend in Second Life, the more I realize that this "escape from reality" isn't. It's all too real, some days.

I bought the guns for a favored role-play environment - but as the only land we can afford is in something of a rough-and ready area with no security, guns with the capacity to punish idiots are a necessity.

More to the point, dealing with the non-fun economic and social necessities has taken a huge chunk out of discretionary funds and discretionary fun, but it has definitely provoked some useful thought as I've been forced to consider things that there's little or no reason to think of in "Real Life." Or at least, we have been told there's little reason to think of them. But the incident that provoked this essay was in fact all too common in reality; a common, garden-variety asshole acting as inept sociopaths always do, as if there could be no legitimate personal consequences to them from actions that are obvious causes for offense.

And at it's most basic level, all civilization derives from answering the schoolyard taunt: "Oh, yeah, whaddya gonna do about it, sissy?"

Yesterday I answered that question myself; confronted with such a situation of offense, I calculated the costs of doing something against the costs of not doing something and decided that it was both honorable and affordable to answer a bully's rhetorical question, along with the other, even more telling one: "Who do you think you are?"

My answer is that I'm someone willing and able to say no. I simply do not tolerate behavior around me that should, in justice, get someone harmed, because if it IS tolerated, there's no predicting who will be harmed or the ultimate extent. On the other hand, the bad behavior of one person and an appropriate response is easily calculated.

And, while you may not be able to teach a sociopath to care about others, or honestly believe they deserve the consequences imposed upon them, you CAN illustrate cause and effect.

So, I liberated my inner Cindy Sheehan; that wonderful person that no political movement seems to understand, because the desire for justice and accountability is in many ways antithetical to the bastard compromises that comprise our US domestic political process.

And in doing so, I realized that somehow during the course of my life - or possibly even earlier, that most of my encounters with our particular form of government involve some degree of, "who do YOU think YOU are" compounded with "And whatcha gonna do about it, sissy?"

We have an arrogant, inefficient, unresponsive and obviously incompetant government, one that makes us as an obvious target of opportunity as the late and unlamented Ottoman Empire.

In hindsight, I find it amusing that Europe preferred to go to war to determine who would impose order, rather than risk any outbreak of anarchy. I think that now, in hindsight, Europeans in general find such concerns rather quaint, and oddly, spend rather less time governing the choices of their citizens in matters irrelevant to functional concerns than we do.

But the problem with anarchy is not Anarchists. It's those what see unprotected individuals, assets, resources and power as their just and due reward for a life of conscious piracy and predation.

In practice, the necessity to spend huge amounts of money and time to "secure the benefits of liberty" is a persuasive argument for the value of wholesale security arrangements. Anyone so unfortunate to live in such a first life society - and there are many - where civilization is fairly much an urban phenomenon and not to be taken for granted even there, the urge to trade a theoretical liberty for some practical security is probably pretty compelling.

But it's generally a false bargain; for those who claim to be the champions of civilization tend to confuse civilized behavior with compliance. The two concepts are not really interchangeable at all, as can be easily discerned by comparing our culture to those where citizens obey laws because they agree with them, rather than out of fear of getting caught.

In Second Life there are very few offenses indeed that bear any greater penalty than having to find a different online context. And in fact - that is not so different from real life, if we do as the Buddha suggests and divest ourselves of attachment to material things. This is the great secret to all of life - ultimately, nobody can make you participate in their reality for their profit. They may extract a price, there may be consequences for not "going along to get along," but ultimately, there is always a choice. Sometimes the choice is very stark indeed, but usually that comes after a long series of unwise donations of liberty and conscience to "the greater good."

But we are raised in this country, nearly from birth, with the idea that without government - and without our particular form of two party government, we would be no better than any other nation.

I find the presumption that we are better than all other nations amusing, since unlike the majority of American citizens, I have actually lived in another nation. We are most assuredly not "better" by definition, and in those particular places where we happen to be better than most or even all, it's due to reasons that have nothing to do with patriotism or propaganda - it's due to good old fashioned hard work and dedication by individual citizens working in and out of government. As often as not, such results come about at cross-purposes with government.

Because - if you take out the attraction of holding power over the lives and choices of other people and dismiss the childish delight of "getting away with things" as being just that, a childish delight - you start to realize that there is as much profit to be had in magnifying the effective liberty of others as there is in controlling them to provide security. Furthermore, it's an open-ended log curve, with residual benefits, rather than a one time gain from a donation of individual freedom.

There is only so much security that can be provided. There are only so many threats to be dealt with, and only so many compromises that can be made in the name of "security" before society ceases to function. But there is no potential end to the number of wise and profitable individual choices that can be made possible, and the more choices there are, the more synergies arise, the more profit is had by all.

Of course, if you are in the business of providing the illusion of security, the numbers may seem different, but then that's true of all frauds and schemes where nothing is made to appear to be something. So let us not speak of fears and panics; let us speak only of concrete realities, such as Visigoths, Viruses and variable interest rates compounded by modified bankruptcy laws; genuine, tangible threats to security and liberty. For, real or metaphorical, the politics of personal liberty are as local as it's possible to get and as easily definable as an axe transecting the skull.

Death is the end of all choice, in this perceptual reality, at least. But it is also impossible to violate the rights of the dead. You cannot exploit the dead in any greatly useful way, and ultimately, any social structure that depended on wholesale death to maintain order, or power has disappeared from history, generally after rather brief spans. For when rulers turn on their people they turn on their own source of power and authority.

Short of death, it seems to me that the fewer choices the typical individual has within a society, the less life there is in that society. The fewer options, the fewer choices there are, whether these deficits are brought by poverty, ignorance, superstition, custom or political oppression, the poorer that society is overall, and the less competitive it is in what is more obviously becoming a global marketplace of competing ideas.

The products, services, policies, wars, conflicts, migrations and social phenomena that follow those ideas are not the causes - they are the effects, to the point where it's becoming more and more practical to look at the world as a whole as neither material, nor economic, nor political, but rather a completely non-physical matrix of potential energy.

I'm not saying that it is, I'm saying that's a useful mental construct, one that helps you see the profit potential in empowering others, rather than in attempting to corner the market in power. The greater profit is in the more ethical direction not because it's "good" to be ethical, but because ethics - the philosophy of maximizing the good outcomes and minimizing the bad outcomes of all human activity - is really the art of minimalistic intervention in the lives of others.

That is to say that in order to avoid blowback, to experience the least personal harm and the greatest personal benefit, to achieve the greatest amount of good in the shortest amount of time, one must first accept one very simple and very personal restriction that is both very simple and the core of every single moral and philosophical system on the planet. "Harm none." Do not impinge upon, take advantage of, exploit, harass, oppress, harm, threaten or kill others for fun or profit. Do not force them to limit their choices simply to frustrate or resist you.

Not so much because it's wrong, but because the more you do that, the more unfavorable outcomes you create, the more compensatory structures you must erect to limit the blowback, the more friction and conflict arises - and sooner or later, you have a complicated mass of conflicting, often delusional agendas, justifications, excuses and lies that become an impediment to coping with a suddenly emergent situation.

Global warming, for an example of an extremely unpleasant reality that will change the face of the globe and every single power structure within society.

Life is like that - the universe has a way of shaking the table every once in a while, and if those running the society for their own enjoyment and profit have wandered away from the path of ethics - those who compose the vast majority of all societies - the apparently powerless - often suddenly realize that there is no personal advantage in putting any more energy into the system and structure than is absolutely needful.

You see, despite the wet-dreams of facists and all others who worship at the altar of order and predictability, life itself is unsustainable without chaos and life-forms (which include planets, governments, families and even religious philosophies) that cannot cope with, adapt to and exploit sudden change have a sharply limited horizon of viability.

Ask any dinosaur.

Or indeed, the human race prior to the near extinction recorded in our mitochondrial DNA.

You see, we are facing a triple crisis - increasingly rapid environmental change, increasingly rapid socio-economic change and a HUGE crisis of imagination.

The first two - well, humanity has dealt with both, and on occasion, both at once with various degrees of success. But it has always been the third that determined whether or not any particular subset of "humanity" - corporate, institutional or particular - survived. And it seems to me that the greatest impediment to comprehending the potentials of a new roll of the dice is having a great deal invested in things as they are.

And nowhere is this more true than in the leadership of any human endeavor. Those in power have the most to gain from the status quo, the most to fear if things do not continue as they are, so no matter how bad things become for most, they always tend to delude themselves that it's better to force things to continue as they are against increasing resistance, rather than simply taking their chips from the table and waiting for a new game to start.

So the question for you and for me is far more radical than whether or not we are Progressives or Liberals or Conservatives, or indeed, whether or not we support a generally libertarian or a generally authoritarian philosophy of governance.

The question is, are we individuals going to remember that ultimately ANY government is merely a means to an end - and that end is brutally simple. It either promotes our own personal and general safety and advantage more than we could ourselves, or it does not. If it does not, indeed, if it actively obstructs us in those ends - it's not at all unreasonable for individuals so affected to ignore it when possible and resist it when not. This is already true in wide swaths of America, particularly poor and black areas. And those swaths are growing - to the point where you can also choose to see that both legitimate and practical influence of government (short of the use of overwhelming force) is narrowing to the point where it's demands on the populace as a whole are unsustainable.

If that comes to pass, it matters little what such people are called by members of that government, for the fact that large numbers of those kept outside of the comforts of a narrowing circle of law, order and comfortable complacency exist at all is a critical failure. That government, that society is doomed, and whatever history says about it and those that supplant it, it IS history.

Meanwhile, individual humans will assert their inarguable right to survive as best they can in arrangements that work as well as they can manage, and they will do this with or without the assent of "Those Anointed By God To Rule."

I, for one, am not waiting for an increasingly irrelevant government to solve problems for me. Not that I'll complain if they do, but I'm not betting on it, nor am I going to be calling their attentions to what are, in my judgment, good solutions for me and mine. Seems to me that post Katrina, post 9/11, there's not a lot to convince me that they have the judgment to be trusted with important things like my precious pink butt.

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